Panel finds valley solar can help decarbonize state but local needs loom

Nov. 20—The San Joaquin Valley may soon become home to vast solar arrays turning fallowed farmland into a source of clean energy while sustaining local jobs. But it won't be easy pulling it off in a way that's equitable to local communities.

That much was clear during an online panel the Public Policy Institute of California hosted earlier this month titled "Solar Development in the San Joaquin Valley." It took participants through layers of complications that remain to be addressed if the valley is to meet its potential as a major component of California's efforts to become carbon neutral by 2045.

An early theme to emerge was that collaboration will be necessary across many levels of government to develop solar at a large enough scale. After that arose a consensus that there are many difficult policy obstacles to overcome along the way.

One of the event's panelists, Director Lorelei Oviatt of the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department, brought 15 years of solar power permitting experience to the conversation. She called for specific state policy changes on matters involving property tax and farmland reuse, and she ended up suggesting different forms of solar development than just electricity generation.

"This is really hard work and we need everyone," Oviatt said. "There are hard choices ahead, but we can do this faster than 15 years."

The event opened with a summary of new research suggesting a significant overlap between property suitable for photovoltaic solar arrays and farmland that will have to be fallowed as a result of state groundwater pumping restrictions.

Research associate Annabelle Rosser at the PPIC Water Policy Center said that maximizing clean energy's benefits will require broad-based planning on which land gets fallowed, in coordination with the rollout of much-needed transmission and power interconnection infrastructure.

There will have to be simplified permitting, she said, as well as development of a robust solar-installations workforce together with wise habitat planning.

Plus, all of this needs to happen fast: Meeting the state's decarbonization goals will require more than quadrupling California's current pace of solar development, Rosser noted.

Panelist Erica Brand, a long-term planner with the California Energy Commission, emphasized the need for strategic collaboration to ensure affordable, equitable solar development offering investment opportunities and attractive options for landowners.

A ground-level perspective came from panelist Dan Kim, an executive and principal at Golden State Clean Energy, which has brought 250 megawatts of photovoltaic solar online and is building 400 megawatts more, with another 500 megawatts planned.

Kim said he looks forward to policy changes leading to greater transmission capacity. He also called for a quicker, less expensive process for power interconnections, which he said have been a big reason why projects that used to take three years now take seven to eight.

Project construction has given better-paying jobs to a workforce that tends to move from one assignment to the next, Kim said. He added that consistency of assignments will be important to create a pipeline of work employees need to provide for their families.

Another panelist, Huron Mayor Rey Leon, focused on the loss to communities when farmland comes out of production. Solar development will have to fill that void in an equitable way that creates not only construction careers, he said, but good-paying, long-term jobs like engineer, attorney and manager.

If the solar industry's making hundreds of millions, there needs to be benefits for communities taking the brunt of the transition, he said, adding, "Our local economy needs to be empowered."

Oviatt, the only panelist representing Kern, pointed out the county is far along on the transition at issue, having permitted 157,000 acres of wind and solar power, mostly in the desert but also in the valley, achieving about 90 percent local hires.

Oviatt called for ending a state exemption allowing solar developers to avoid paying property taxes that would otherwise fund public services.

"Do not leave us behind while you are pursuing your goals," Oviatt said. "That's our message from a local standpoint."

She also suggested revisiting rules that penalize farmland owners who take land out of production. She asked that the state shorten the timetable for upgrading transmission infrastructure.

The future of solar development in the valley also offers opportunities for carbon capture and storage, Oviatt said, as well as green hydrogen and green biomass and concrete, all of which are under consideration in Kern.